Cuyahoga County has been engaged in a long search for a new jail.  The preferred location is property on Transport Road, which was also the site of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Refinery #1.  A significant part of the controversy surrounds whether the site is safe for redevelopment given its industrial past.  The debate surrounding the site shows the stigma we still associate with brownfields.  This despite the fact that approximately 700 sites, many much more contaminated than the site on Transport Road, have been successfully remediated in Ohio.

Here are several quotes from recent articles discussing the controversy surrounding the site.  The highlighted quotes show the stigma still assigned to brownfield sites:

Cuyahoga County’s preferred location for a new jail has been mired in controversy over whether toxic conditions can be remediated for safe use, but county officials say it’s the only property that meets all their criteria. (Cuyahoga County officials explain how they narrowed jail search to toxic Transport Road site (

Executive candidates Chris Ronayne and Lee Weingart issued letters this week calling for council to pause jail planning, suggesting there are better options than the proposed $750-million, 1,900-bed facility at a potentially toxic site. Both have also said they will not put a jail at 2700 Transport Road, even if council votes to buy it. (Cuyahoga County executive candidates ask council to stop jail planning, lay out concerns, alternatives –

 It has a toxic past and a recent environmental study revealed there remains oil deposits in the ground, as well as explosive methane and cancer-causing benzene gases that would require continuous remediation to prevent serious health risks. (

The discussion and debate surrounding the potential jail site shows the stigma and challenges of overcoming public perception even after nearly 30 years of brownfield redevelopment in Ohio.

The steps being proposed to address the issues at the potential jail site include:

  • Restriction on use of groundwater
  • Vapor mitigation system
  • Two feet of clean cap material
  • Completing a cleanup through Ohio EPA’s Voluntary Action Program (VAP) and obtain a legal release upon completion (i.e. VAP covenant-not-to-sue)

The list of remediation techniques outlined for the site are common and used at hundreds of brownfield sites across Ohio.  In terms of restrictions on use of groundwater, a large portion of the City of Cleveland is already subject to what is called an “urban setting designation” which prohibits use of groundwater due to impacts from prior industrial use.

I work on many brownfield redevelopment projects.  Many projects in the City of Cleveland typically involve vapor mitigation systems, which are similar to a radon mitigation used in homes.  The VAP has been used over 700 times in Ohio previously to protect owners from liability from pre-existing contamination.  Other high profile sites in the County are currently undergoing far more complex cleanups under the VAP, such as the former Ford plants.

Ohio just completed the highly successful Ohio Brownfield Remediation Program that included $350 million dollars for brownfield redevelopment.  The three rounds of funding were oversubscribed.  The first round of funding alone saw:

  • $252.6 million in funding
  • 116 cleanups the vast majority of which if not all will use the VAP
  • 74 assessment projects

If after decades of successful brownfield redevelopment we still cannot overcome the stigma associated with such sites, it leads to urban sprawl and neglect for our urban centers.  The map below highlights the issues with urban sprawl in Cuyahoga County:

Developed Land 2002

The first image shows the total developed land in Cuyahoga County in 1948.  The second image shows developed land in 2002.  The key fact is that the population between 1948 and 2002 is roughly the same. (Images courtesy Western Reserve Land Conservancy)  This is a classic demonstration of urban sprawl.

It is easier and often less costly to develop on greenfield property.  Those dynamics is what leads to neglect of our urban cores and the secondary issues associated with sprawl.

While the focus on the environmental debate seems to be the classic stigma associated with brownfield redevelopment, equal consideration should be given to our neglect of our urban core and the dynamics that contribute to sprawl.  Finally, with a successful track record of remediating and reuse of former industrial sites across the state we should be way past the debate whether such property can be successfully and safely redeveloped.